The first step, then, is to understand that technology is just one of the means to an end.
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Technological innovation is undoubtedly a major driver in the unprecedented growth that our society - especially the western world - has experienced in the past couple of decades. It has created better living conditions, more efficient processes, has made information more accessible and has supported discoveries through a disruptive approach in fields of public interest (such as in the healthcare sector).
Technological innovation, moveover, is widely recognised as the only mean to ensure perpetual growth, idea at the base of most economic theories. Within this context, as expressed by the well known Environmental Kuznet Curve, technology based innovation is also seen as the necessary instrument to solve those environmental problems that we inevitably create in order to sustain this growth. What economic theories and economists don’t say, and actually seem to ignore, is how and when this growth will happen. Which means that the level of technological development and growth at which things will start to get better is not yet known.
Take for example the past 20 years of technological innovation in power generation: which led to a mere 8% drop in emission intensity of the sector (source iea).
Thus, when looking at the basic principles of the circular economy and the different schools of thought that contributed to its foundation - or that are somehow related - it becomes clear that there is a large perspectival gap on the role of technology, compared to the current linear and growth oriented mindset. Indeed, when leaders in the linear economy sit around a table to discuss the innovation elements needed to support the transition to a circular system, the outputs often point out to technological innovation that further improves the performance and system efficiency without considering the bigger picture..
However, if we look at how an 100% efficient system looks like, we can easily realize that is not what we should aim for. An efficient system would only slow down the ongoing depletion of natural resources, without reverting it. As Ken Webster, one of the founders of the current Circular Economy theory, points out: efficiency must serve effectiveness but resilience preserves it.
As Einstein Said,
“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”
It’s no secret that technology has the ability to increase the efficiency of processes. However, little technology can do to transform the way people run and interpret business. Circular supply chains, for example, are one of the focus elements to close the loop of material and face the issue of waste created by the linear economy.
A few months ago, about 40 companies from different sectors gathered at the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics (MIT CTL) for a roundtable titled Toward Circularity in the Supply Chain. A critical lesson that emerged from this meeting, as reported by Alexis Bateman director of Research Scientist and Director of Sustainable Supply Chains at MIT, was that to start moving towards circular supply chains, adopters need to develop circular modes of thinking.
But how can we develop a circular mindset and reinterpret the role of waste?
Unlike a linear one, a circular mindset is based on the idea of closing the loop of materials. There are two characteristics with a predominant role in circular-oriented thinkers:
The past 50 year of industrial revolution have shaped the way we approach the world problems, from big to small. Nowadays, our minds tend to break the world down into manageable chunks and analyze issues in isolation from their systemic roots. Therefore, we’re only able to solve a problem by treating the symptoms and not the causes. Thinking in systems means understanding that individuals, companies, nature, and so forth are elements of a dynamic and evolving system; where everything is interconnected and causality rules. The systemic approach is a holistic one that seeks to understand something primarily in the context of the whole that it’s part of.
Shifting out of the linear thinking status quo then, means understanding that we’re not just designing a product or optimizing a process. It means that we have to design for “ecosystems” of things and agents that are interacting in a networked fashion, adapting and evolving; what’s also known as a complex adaptive system (find out more about Design for Systems here). Only in this way, we can fully close the loop of materials and design the lifecycle of a product so to minimize its impact and leakage of resources.
With regard to the second point, phasing out waste, we can’t just build an efficient recycling infrastructure (as we put it earlier, that would mean curing the symptoms instead of looking at the cause). On the other hand, we should start by removing the idea - embedded in the current linear system - of limited responsibility.
In the linear system, producers transfer the responsibility of a product to the consumer through the sale process; once they get rid of the product then, consumers transfer the responsibility to the society. Such thinking in clusters is the rooting cause of waste generation. Phasing out ‘waste’ starts by entering a mindset of extended responsibility in which companies, consumers and society mutually shares the burdens and the benefits of a product life-cycle.
Let’s put it this way: an innovation pursued under the current mindset would just have the effect of temporarily patching the cracks of a broken system. Quite dumb isn’t it?
For example, two of the focus areas in today’s innovation are fighting plastic and waste problems. While boosting research for new materials then, we’re creating infrastructures to make recycling more efficient. A lack of coordination between these two sectors would just lead to building technologies and infrastructures that won’t be able to handle the waste flow of new materials in 10-20 years.
Another relevant example might be the innovation being pushed within the blockchain realm. As transparency and traceability of supply chains become growing concerns for consumers and society, blockchain based products are entering the market as the solution to the problem. However, between the hundreds of thousands of brands and suppliers in the market, only a few are ready or willing to go fully transparent. On the other side, waiting for policies to force the adoption of blockchain technologies would just not happen at the required pace.
Therefore, the role of technological innovation should be better framed within systemic innovation processes. Technology should rather be functional to enhance and leverage the complexity of systems and smoothen this needed cultural transition. With this in mind, we shouldn’t just look at what doesn’t work in a process and try to fix it with technology; but rather understand why it doesn’t work, how it can be transformed to make it fit the system better and how technology can be of support.SET UP A MEETING